Only seven African-American screenwriters, all men, have earned Oscar nominations in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay. This year, with According to our Oscar experts, writer/director Dee Rees willmake Oscar history as the first African-American woman cited in the category for her work on the film adaptation of “Mudbound”. Rees and Virgil Williams adapted the 2008 novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan. Her film follows two Mississippi families, one black and one white, who share delta farmland during and after World War II.
The first African-American writer to earn a nomination in Best Adapted Screenplay was the celebrated playwright Lonne Elder III, recognized for “Sounder” (1972), the film adaptation of the eponymous 1970 William H. Armstrong novel about a family of black sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Despite being nominated for an additional three Oscars — Best Picture, Best Actor (Paul Winfield) and Best Actress (Cicely Tyson) — “Sounder” failed to earn a single victory on Oscar night. Elder fell short to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, scribes of Best Picture winner “The Godfather.”
In 1984, playwright Charles Fuller, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for “A Soldier’s Play” (1982), adapted his work to the big screen. Focused on an African-American officer investigating the murder of a black sergeant toward the end of World War II, the film was a Best Picture nominee and also earned nominations in Best Supporting Actor (Adolph Caesar) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It did not triumph in any category, with Fuller losing to Peter Shaffer and his script for Best Picture winner “Amadeus.”
Twenty-five years later, another African American made Oscar history. With his screenplay to “Precious” (2009), based on the book “Push” (1996) by Sapphire, Geoffrey Fletcher was the first African American to score an Oscar win for screenwriting. The film, which follows the struggles of an overweight, illiterate and abused black teenager, was the recipient of significant Oscar recognition, including a win for Best Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique) and nominations in Best Picture, Bets Director (Lee Daniels), Best Lead Actress (Gabourey Sidibe) and Best Film Editing (Joe Klotz).
In 2013, filmmaker John Ridley became the first African American to pen the screenplay for a Best Picture Oscar winner with his script to “12 Years a Slave.” Based on the eponymous memoir of Solomon Northup, the film chronicles the free-born African American from New York as he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film scored three victories on Oscar night, in Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Last year, a record three African Americans graced the category in the same year. Among the three Oscars earned by “Moonlight” (2016) was Best Adapted Screenplay, a prize awarded to director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who adapted the latter’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The film, which told the story of a young African American during his childhood, teen years and early adulthood, also picked up wins in Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali).
Also vying in this category was the late two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, who penned the film adaptation to his 1985 play “Fences.” Focused on the life of an African-American family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, the film was also a nominee in Best Picture, Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis), with Davis emerging triumphant. Wilson was the first African American to earn a posthumous Oscar nomination for screenwriting.
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